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ODU economist: The sooner Newport News-Williamsburg Airport shifts focus, the better

The Newport News-Williamsburg International Airport served 150,000 passengers in 2023 and is on track to serve fewer in 2024.
Photo by Nick McNamara
The Newport News-Williamsburg International Airport served150,000 passengers in 2023 and is on track to serve fewer in 2024.

A new study recommends the Newport News-Williamsburg Airport leave commercial air service behind and lean into advanced aviation research and development.

A new regional air study recommends Newport News-Williamsburg International Airport shift its focus away from commercial air service to non-traditional sectors.

The Hampton Roads Air Study highlights some of the issues ailing the airport, also called Patrick Henry Field or PHF.

It has operated at a loss in 16 of the past 17 months up to November 2023. That contributed to a $4.2 million loss. PHF has a nearly $3 million deficit in its 2025 budget, and not enough cash on hand to cover the entirety of the gap.

Commercial air customers have also fallen steadily over the past 10 years, with the dip intensifying during the COVID-19 pandemic. Where the airport once regularly served more than a million passengers per year prior to 2012, that has fallen to about 150,000 in 2023 and is on track to fall even lower in 2024.

“This unsustainable financial model highlights the urgent need for strategic changes,” the study concludes.

With Norfolk International Airport continuing to grow, recommendations point to a future in advanced aviation and research as a potential lifesaver for PHF.

Advanced air mobility is a newly emerging sector that encompasses a variety of air transportation innovations such as electric vertical takeoff and landing or eVTOL aircraft.

The study claims that leaning into becoming a research and development hub for the new industry and leaving commercial air service behind could “result in substantial cost reductions, enhancing PHF’s financial sustainability.”

“Repurposing PHF to align with current trends in unmanned flight and advanced air mobility could transform it into a vital economic engine for the region,” the report reads.

Vinod Agarwal, professor of economics at Old Dominion University, said sooner or later PHF will need to move that direction to survive. He said they don’t have much more to lose.

“[The] sooner we find alternatives, the better off we are,” he said.

A 2018 Virginia Department of Aviation study reported that PHF drew $410 million in economic activity in 2016. With annual passengers now less than half of the number seen that year, Agarwal said it’s plausible the economic impact has dropped at a similar rate.

“Suppose your passenger traffic has fallen by 50%,” Agarwal said. “That means the economic impact is likely to decline by at least 50%.”

Agarwal also noted other changes in regional transportation systems could change commercial air customer choices. As the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel expansion project wraps up, that could make the choice to commute to Norfolk for air travel even easier.

“Even the Richmond Airport will lose some business from those people who were traveling from Newport News or Hampton to Richmond,” he said.

Exactly what impact the city and region’s economy will feel should PHF halt commercial air service is unclear. The PHF had already seen its list of air carriers fall to one in 2023. And Agarwal said a traveler flying into Norfolk or Richmond is less consequential if they still spend their dollars on the Peninsula.

“The only people who you would suspect would start not coming here is if they are very dependent on airport service coming to Newport News directly,” Agarwal said. “Leisure travelers, you could see a small drop. But not much, because they could still come through Richmond or through Norfolk Airport.”

As financial troubles compound and PHF’s passenger count and economic impact continue to droop, officials have not committed to cutting commercial flights.

Whichever direction airport leadership chooses, Agarwal agreed with the study’s recommendations to augment its operations by partnering with firms focused on advanced aviation research and development.

“The question is how aggressive does the [Peninsula Airport Commission] want to be,” Agarwal said. “Why not be a leader in this area to look at alternatives.”

Nick is a general assignment reporter focused on the cities of Williamsburg, Hampton and Suffolk. He joined WHRO in 2024 after moving to Virginia. Originally from Los Angeles County, Nick previously covered city government in Manhattan, KS, for News Radio KMAN.

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